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Regulation of Genetically Engineered Foods
A ‘Novel’ Idea

    “Government advisory committees lack sufficient representation from independent scientists not linked to the industry. The result is that an untried, inadequately researched technology has been rushed prematurely to market, while existing scientific evidence of hazards are being downplayed, ignored, and even suppressed, and little independent research on risks are being carried out.”

    from World Scientist’s Statement, calling for a moratorium on GE crops and patents [1]

How the system works

The federal government regulates the approval of what they term “novel crops”, which include genetically engineered (GE) crops. An application for a new GE product takes approximately 10 years to complete the approval process. This involves evaluating data generated by biotechnology companies, university and government researchers as to the product’s efficacy, and health and environmental safety. There are two major agencies that evaluate this data, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada (HC). The mandate given to CFIA is to assess the crops biology and its impact on the environment and biodiversity; the possibility of gene flow and impact on non-target organisms; and livestock feed safety. Health Canada is responsible for human food safety and allerginicity.[2] Whether or not these agencies fulfill their mandate is questionable.

Another piece of legislation that is involved in regulation is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), administered by Environment Canada (EC). This act is responsible for evaluating any product that does not have any applicable legislation, such as the Seeds Act or the Food and Drug Act. Oddly enough, this is the only piece of legislation that has specific references to health and environmental aspects of biotechnology.[3] This has little impact, however, as most acts and regulations take precedent over the CEPA.[4]

The application includes:

– The efficacy of the product

– Environmental safety (toxicology data)

– Health safety

It does not include:

– Farmer’s desire for the product

– Consumer opinion

– Economic impacts (on trade for example)

– Long-term toxicity tests

Problems with the system

There exists several major problems in the current framework of legislation for GE products they include:

  • Regulation and Promotion The same agencies that are regulating GE products have spent millions on campaigns to boost the image of GE.[5]

  • Data used in approval process is supplied by companies Not only is this a conflict of interest, but the data is owned by the corporations and they can choose not to make it public and available for peer review.

  • The government uses the controversial concept of “substantial equivalence” when conducting its evaluation as opposed to the accepted “precautionary principle”[6]. The latter assumes that a product is unsafe until proven otherwise. The Canadian government has the outlook that compares data from other products testing period and then passes judgement. This is used to rush the approval process, as major toxicological tests can be bypassed.

  • Lack of unified legislation concerning GE products This was suggested in 1980 but rejected[7]. If it existed, it could allow an obvious sequence of events for regulation, thus allowing public scrutiny into the process. In fact the existing legislation was created before GE products emerged. How can GE products be regulated by something predating genetic engineering?

  • Biotech sector funding government research Through the Matched Investment Initiative (MII), biotechnology firms have the opportunity to invest in government research, using civil servant expertise, and federal research facilities to fund their projects. This research is often completed in secret, as was revealed by an access to information request confirming GE testing at many federal research stations across the country.[8]

The Federal Government has spent billions on the biotechnology sector. In 1991 alone, they spent $160 million, $95 million of which were from grants and contributions.[9]

What should be done?

  • Adoption of the precautionary principle;

  • Legislation should be put in place to ensure the immediate labelling of all GE products

  • Stop the open-air testing of GE products in secret;

  • A system that examines public opinion on GE, to assess social want or need for the commodities;

  • The inclusion of economic impact assessments in the approval process. If markets will fail as a result of the technology, why would we want it?

  • Canada signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety ( in 2001, and yet contradicts their its tenets through: not employing the precautionary principle, the role of sound science in risk assessment, and the identification, or labelling of living modified organisms to be used in food, feed or processing. Canada cannot simply be a signatory, it must also implement the protocol.

What can you do?

  • Write a letter to your MP (no postage necessary), to the Minister of Agriculture, Minister of Health and to the Prime Minister requesting a new regulation system for GE products and a moratorium on approvals

  • Choose not to buy GE products

  • Don’t invest in biotechnology. If you have ethical investments, ask your financial planner if these include biotech shares, and if so, opt out.




    [3] Bjorkquist, S. and Winfield, M. 1999. The Regulation of Agricultural Biotechnology in Canada. Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, Toronto.

    [4] Schedule 4 of the CEPA.

    [5] Freeze, C. 2002. Ottawa promoting safety of GMOs. Globe and Mail. p.A9. 5 February 2002.

    [6] Royal Society of Canada. Expert Panel on the Future of Biotechnology. 2001.

    [7] Growing Uncertainty: the environmental risk assessment of genetically engineered herbicide tolerant canola in Canada. Ph.D. Dissertation. York University, Toronto.

    [8] Thibodeau W. 2003. Environmentalists critical of genetically engineered crops but science director says there are no 'secret' tests. The Guardian. 2 April 2003.

    [9] Kuyek, D. 2002. The real board of directors – the construction of biotechnology policy in Canada 1980-2002. The Ram’s Horn, Canada.


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